Why Does Anyone Risk Their Lives for Adventure Travel?

Despite all the risks, humans keep trying to get to the deepest reaches of the ocean and the peaks of the highest mountains, while treading on others and Mother Nature. 

On June 18, five adventurers set out on a dangerous mission: to dive down to the wreckage of the Titanic Wreckage at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

They traveled in a submersible named Titan, operated by OceanGate, an American expeditions company, and helmed by its CEO, Stockton Rush. Unfortunately, the Oceangate Titan never reached its destination and lost contact with the mother ship an hour and 45 minutes into its dive, launching a days-long, expensive search and rescue effort that captivated the world. When the news of the submersible’s implosion surfaced–which killed all onboard–it brought on critical commentary about the vessel’s design.

Social media was abuzz with comparisons between the way the media covered this disaster and the refugee boat that capsized off the coast of Greece. Both sets of groups knowingly embarked on an extremely risky endeavor: one, a resource-rich group wishing to be among the elite few to set eyes on the Titanic wreckage; the other, a group fleeing wartime strife and political instability in their regions.

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When necessity or fear is removed from the equation, it begs many questions as to why anyone would willingly engage in such dangerous activities. Is it Western culture’s emphasis on individualism and success? The innate human need for new and exciting things? A perpetuation of the colonial narrative of “exploration” and “discovery”? Sheer privilege?

It is a combination of all of the above.

Adventure tourism not only puts an individual at risk but often endangers others in communities and can pose threats to the environment. It can also be a force for good when done with respect for people and the planet. But to do better means having an understanding of the human psyche, societal expectations, and the colonialistic influences that continue to fuel the booming adventure tourism industry. It’s also important to endorse and implement adventuring in a way that is better for ourselves, others, and the world.

Why Does Anyone Risk Their Lives for Adventure Travel?

Behind the Human Desire for Adventure

Adventure tourism is loosely defined as physically demanding and adrenaline-pumping activities such as mountaineering, skydiving, spelunking, and freediving. Some softer adventure activities like kayaking, hiking, skiing, or other immersions in nature are also often included. Adventure tourism often encompasses cultural immersion, a way of traveling to places to learn about lifestyles and customs–not our own.

While many adventure tourism activities are considered safe, some activities pose inherent threats. Many have perished attempting to climb Mt. Everest, including around 17 this year, the deadliest in history. Even seemingly safe expeditions like cruising to Antarctica can be perilous. Four U.S. citizens died during last year’s sailings to the icy continent. But that’s not stopping scores of ambitious mountaineers lining up to ascend the tallest mountain or dreamers hoping to cross the seventh continent off their bucket lists.

Humans have engaged in some form of adventure since time immemorial. Hunters and gatherers embarked on arduous voyages to find habitable places. This desire to explore new territories and conquer challenges is rooted in our nature and various psychological factors, says Dr. LeMeita Smith, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, Director of Clinical Services at United Health Services and Psychological Advisor at Tarotoo.

First, it’s the idea of novelty-seeking, as we as a species continually look for new and exciting experiences. “Adventure tourism offers the opportunity to break away from routine and seek out thrilling, unfamiliar environments,” says Dr. Smith. “The sense of adrenaline and the unknown can be highly appealing to individuals seeking a sense of excitement and personal growth.”

Secondly, the desire to “be the first” and achieve great feats is linked to a sense of achievement and status, according to Dr. Smith. “In certain privileged groups, such as cisgender, white, wealthy males, societal expectations and cultural norms may place an emphasis on competition and individual success.” Pushing the limits to reach certain destinations and complete hard-to-achieve quests provides a sense of validation and accomplishment.

It’s important to note that not all individuals who engage in adventure tourism have the same motivations. They may be seeking personal growth, a connection with nature, or to simply liberate themselves from the mundane, shares Dr. Smith.

Colonial Influences

One major influence outside of the human psyche that shaped adventure tourism is colonialism. During the European Age of Exploration, from the late 15th to the 18th century, explorers set out in pursuit of “new” lands to claim and make their own. Dr. Smith believes it’s the same mindset that can be seen in some individuals who approach adventure tourism today. “The desire to conquer and exert dominance over nature or unfamiliar landscapes may reflect a subconscious continuation of colonialist ideologies.”

Adventure tourism, according to Cameron Temple, Director of The Luxury Chalet Company, an online luxury ski travel agency based in London, is a continuation of a “deeply entrenched and unequal balance of power and wealth between Western nations and the rest of the world.” Our history books hail the explorers of the past as heroes, men of stamina who were willing to push the boundaries, he continues. “Yet the reality of this age of discovery lays bare Europe’s bloody colonial past.”

With almost every corner of the planet “discovered,” extreme and risky adventure sports became the new frontier for those in privileged groups, specifically affluent white men, who have the time and money to pay for it. The rare opportunity and bragging rights to be able to see the Titanic wreckage is one such risky endeavor that appealed to an extremely wealthy and adventurous sector. The passengers of the Titan were called “mission specialists,” and they included British Businessman Hamish Harding, father and son duo of Shahzada Dawood and Suleman Dawood, and a French deep-sea explorer known as Mr. Titanic, Paul-Henri Nargeolet, along with the CEO Stockton Rush. The voyage cost passengers a whopping $250,000 each.

“[Adventure sports] offer the wealthy the opportunity to achieve notoriety and prestige in their circles,” states Temple. (It’s worth noting that while adventure tourism isn’t necessarily a billionaire-exclusive endeavor, participants in these activities are, for the most part, starting from a place where, at the very least, their physiological basic needs have been met.)

One of the earlier examples of colonialism’s influence on adventure tourism is summiting Mt. Everest in the Himalayas. On May 29, 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and his Nepali guide, who carried his belongings, Tenzing Norgay, became the first people to stand on the summit of the tallest peak on earth. The use of porters to help carry heavy gear and equipment up the mountain continues to this day.

The idea of “conquering” the mountain, Marinel M. de Jesus, Esq., Founder of Brown Gal Trekker/Equity Global Treks and The Porter Voice Collective says, emanated from back in the day when a warring country sent soldiers to take over resources. “It became a glorified story in travel. It’s like winning a war.” This narrative, unfortunately, still prevails today, not just in mountaineering but in other aspects of travel.

“The brown bodies do the cheap labor. The explorers who came to Nepal to climb have to use bodies to carry stuff. They are utilizing the resources in the country. That’s colonialism,” says ​de Jesus.

Norgay, the original guide and porter, belonged to the community called Sherpa. “It’s an ethnic group. It’s not the name of a working person. They even colonized that idea by just labeling and minimizing it to a person who is working in a mountain,” adds de Jesus.

Related: Do You Have Any Idea How Rough the Conditions Are for These Travel Workers?

Negative Impacts

In the pursuit of adventure, travelers often overlook the impact their activities have on the environment and Native peoples. In the case of the Everest climbers, de Jesus worries about the erasure of local voices and presence, along with a misunderstanding of what these places mean to them. “Everest is a spiritual place, a religious place. It’s a god, a goddess. It was never meant to be climbed.”

The unequal balance of power between the “explorers” and the Sherpa knowledge holders, who rely on income from guiding, forces them to risk their lives. According to Ravi Parikh, Founder of RoverPass, certain adventures force the oppressed majority—a group of people who make up the largest number of the population yet who remain excluded from political, social, and economic power–to do such acts on behalf of the risk-takers. “The lack of proper resources and the systematic exclusion from decision-making results in the majority of the population submitting to the whims and demands of a privileged few. They do not have any options because they need money badly to sustain themselves and are ready to go to any extent to earn it.”

Parikh states adventure tourist activities can also negatively impact the environment. For example, deep sea diving can damage virgin ocean fauna and flora, adversely affect the lives of hundreds of aquatic species, and disturb coral reefs. Even something as simple as rock climbing can disturb animal and bird life.

In the case of heliskiing, where the participant ventures out on a helicopter to find the freshest snow in remote areas, the impact could be even greater, as it contributes to increased greenhouse gas emissions and added pressure on the ecosystem. While this footprint is smaller in the grand scheme of things, it nonetheless adds to the climate change problem when there are alternatives that could cause less damage.

“After heavy snow, almost all of the ski runs throughout a resort become ‘off-piste’ with fresh powder laying on them. It’s untouched snow but without the avalanche warnings and avgas [aviation gasoline] fumes of a helicopter,” says Temple. Additionally, if something were to go wrong on a heliski outing, such as an avalanche, there’s the added cost of search and rescue that’s passed on to the taxpayer.

Leaving Certain Places Alone

The colonial aspect of adventure tourism is even more troublesome as it relates to Indigenous lands and culture. Building tourism infrastructure on the traditional grounds of the first inhabitants destroys the lands and animals that sustain their populations, while the commodification of sacred places and spaces dismisses their values and traditions.

In Wyoming, the sacred site of Devils Tower is the subject of a decades-long conflict between the members of the Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, Shoshone, and Lakota communities, and technical rock climbers, and the former group requesting climbers stay off the butte that holds spiritual significance during the month of June (when many native members from the Northern Plains Tribes hold ceremonies) and the latter uncooperative.

“We have taken sacred lands like the Black Hills of South Dakota and carved them up into the faces of presidents when there are plenty of non-sacred places we can recreate,” comments Mark Jordahl, a writer, and guide for Natural Habitat Adventures, a responsible tour operator based in Colorado offering conservation focused trips in collaboration with World Wildlife Fund. “Indigenous communities should be able to place some of their most revered sites off limits and have them be only accessible for ceremony, or they could choose to welcome visitors in a way that feels appropriate to them.”

Jordahl believes there should be a component of sacrifice and adventurers willing to give some things up. “I would love to see all tour companies feel a responsibility to coordinate with Indigenous communities that these lands really belong to. That would be the right relationship.”

Thankfully, some things are changing. In October 2019, the sandstone monolith Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock and a popular climbing destination in Australia’s Northern Territory) was officially closed for climbing to respect the land rights of the Anangu people, the area’s traditional owners. The monolith is believed to be more than 600 million years old and holds spiritual significance to the Anangu people. In lieu of climbing, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park now offers a range of cultural experiences and activities for visitors to appreciate the region’s stunning geological formations along with its flora and fauna.

Related: In Australia, ‘Safety’ Is Inhibiting Ecological Processes and Aboriginal Cultural Practices


Benefits of Adventure Tourism Done Right

The Age of Exploration and subsequent expeditions across the globe, despite the unjust exploitation of people and natural resources, gave us a better understanding of the world. Naturalist Charles Darwin went aboard the HMS Beagle as it surveyed the coast of South America, an endeavor that resulted in the Theory of Evolution. “It’s criminal that the main purpose of so many early voyages was to conquer, but a byproduct was learning about species and having accurate maps of the world,” says Jordahl.

Adventure tourism, when done responsibly and intentionally with respect to the people and the planet, is beneficial for all parties. On an individual level, Dr. Smith says it can foster a sense of resilience, provide a platform for self-discovery, and expand one’s horizons. On a community level, it offers economic benefits to the people in the destinations visited.

“The positive outcome of the relationship between adventure tourism and colonialism is that it provides employment and sources of income for the majority [inhabitants] while enabling the minority adventure tourists to get the satisfaction of achieving tasks that are termed challenging otherwise,” says Parikh. Today, despite its dangers, the Sherpa community has gained global recognition and is able to garner significant income by helping trekkers and mountaineers climb Mt. Everest.

For many, seeing the endangered African mountain gorillas is at the top of their bucket lists. Gorilla trekking is indeed expensive (costing as much as $1,500 per person). It’s an activity that attracts privileged groups, but a percentage of the annual income generated from gorilla treks goes directly to the development of the surrounding areas and into the conservation of these magnificent beings.

The mountain gorilla is the only one of the great apes experiencing an increase in population in recent years. “Tourism is the only reason mountain gorillas still exist,” says Jordahl, who has led several Natural Habitat Adventures trips to see this endangered species. “If you closed off gorilla tourism entirely, there would be no incentive for Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to protect them or their forests. I’m proud to be part of a company that focuses on putting money into local economies to ensure they are benefiting from gorilla tourism as well.”

“One of the problems with the early age of exploration and colonization is coming in with a perspective of, ‘what can I get here,’ not a perspective of ‘what can I learn here?’” remarks Jordahl, who hopes a shift to learning can change the approach of adventure travel.

To further decolonize adventure tourism, de Jesus believes there needs to be space created for the local people to be heard. Mainly, she wants travelers to question the narrative. “We need to ask if this is the right way to climb. Is there a better way? And if you want to ask for a better way, start by being curious about how local people see this mountain or this trail or this place.”

When we visit pristine locations, have genuine conversations with people in the places we visit, or come face to face with endangered animals, we become more connected and invested in their survival and success. Hopefully, this engagement influences our everyday lives and actions for the betterment of everyone and a sustainable planet.

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